A new court case in Maine reminds supervisors just how careful you have to be with an employee who’s made a discrimination complaint.

The case involved a college professor who complained to the state human rights commission about sex discrimination and later was denied permission to move her office.

The professor’s office was in a satellite building, and space came open in her department’s main building. Thinking she would have more administrative support and better professional contacts in the main building, she asked for the open office.

Legal issues
But the department head refused, citing her “continuing legal issues” and his concern about the work environment in the main building. The professor sued for retaliation, claiming the denial of office space was an adverse employment action taken in reaction to her bias complaint.

A federal appeals court agreed that denial of office space could sometimes be an adverse employment action. The court recalled the Supreme Court’s definition of adverse action as anything that could “dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”

No adverse action
But here, the court ruled, the denial wasn’t adverse. Other faculty had to make do with satellite offices because of the limited space in the main building. Keeping this particular professor in a satellite office wasn’t personal.

Takeaway: When taking personnel action involving an employee who’s complained of bias, do three things:

  • Avoid making any reference to the complaint.
  • Ask yourself whether the action you’re contemplating could be seen as adverse.
  • Check with HR before proceeding.

photo credit: Jiri Brozovsky

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